Stress Awareness Week special: “I couldn’t turn on my emails without panicking and crying”

4 November 2019

3 minute read

It’s 2008, I’m 26. I am working on the biggest project of my career so far and on paper am looking successful. In reality, I am crying on the train all the way to and back from work. I’m drinking too much to try to calm myself in the evening and barely looking after myself. I can’t sleep, having become convinced I have bed bugs and am itching my body all night and day. I am unable to relax in the company of good friends. I can’t even turn my emails on without having a huge physical surge of panic and anxiety.

At work I can’t make simple decisions, keep making mistakes, lose ability to prioritise and feel any communication with my colleagues is a threat. After about 6 months of these issues growing and growing I simply walk out of my office, jump on a train back home and book a doctor’s appointment. I was diagnosed with work related acute stress disorder. I stayed in bed for a week, didn’t look at my emails for two weeks, handed in my notice after three weeks and slowly started to rebuild my life, bruised by the experience and afraid of the work setting.

workplace stress - woman on laptop

It is now estimated that stress costs society £4 billion each year and nearly 14 million days were taken off work due it stress in 2007/2008.*

One of our Add | Wellbeing in the workplace clinical experts, Angela Bagum, explains: “Workplace stress specifically can be understood to be a response to the experience of demands that are placed upon a person in their role. Too often, the individual can feel that they are not performing as they should be, which may impact their morale in general. Like Kate’s experience, workplace stress may present itself with difficult feelings of not wanting to go into work - a type of anxiety. It can also result in a loss of appetite or over-eating too.  We also know that difficult relationships at work can impact on wellbeing, as well as unbearable workloads and juggling home life. It can all feel too unmanageable.”

Angela advises, “If you are experiencing workplace stress, it is important to ask for help. Of course, sometimes the issue is being able to identify and acknowledge the experience of workplace stress as it is happening. You may feel you cannot discuss the demands placed upon you with your manager, for fear of not being seen to cope or perform your job properly. However, speaking up can highlight something unhelpful or even unreasonable going on within the organisation itself, rather than the individual – for example how resources are used.”  Angela also emphasises the importance of early intervention. “It’s at times like this that an early intervention approach is needed, to help prevent more serious mental health issues taking their toll. Early intervention requires:

  • you acknowledging the workplace stress
  • speaking with your GP
  • having a conversation at work to the relevant person and /or someone you trust
  • recognising that mental health is part of being human and taking care of it is central to your ability to thrive.

It is also about the organisation learning and being proactive around what kind of culture is created, and what kind of support they may need to legally provide you as their employee to make it a safe place to work – and this can prevent further mental distress. The individual and the organisation are both supporting, and promoting together, wellbeing.”

Of those 14 million sick days, 30 were mine due to stress in 2008. Workplace stress affects a huge proportion of the population and we cannot afford to not take this seriously, both on a personal and economic workforce level. In fact, back in 2011, the government published There is no Health Without Mental Health, highlighting the importance of supporting individuals in employment, taking a public health approach to the matter.

So how am I now? 10 years later, I find myself working with businesses to improve their wellbeing and mental health. If only the company I worked for 10 years ago had something in place to support me and also reflect on how the culture negatively impacted my mental health and wellbeing. Instead I hit rock bottom and quit. Paradoxically, I know that without my experience, I probably wouldn’t be working in the field of workplace wellbeing – so in a strange way I am thankful for the experience. Having said that, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and still 10 years on I feel the effects. Now, I just feel grateful to play my part to reduce the number of people who will go through what I went through. 

*figures from Health and Safety Executive 

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Kate Goodale is the Relationship Manager of Add | Wellbeing.

Add | Wellbeing is a mental health and wellbeing in the workplace programme from The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust. Read more about Add | Wellbeing